Jennifer Grey’s New Role: Educating Chronic Pain Sufferers

When I sat down with Jennifer Grey in New York City to talk with her about being the spokesperson for Partners Against Pain, I didn’t ask about Dirty Dancing. It wasn’t on the agenda. Yet it came up because the year the movie was released (1987) coincided with the car accident that left Grey with whiplash damage and chronic pain.

Grey walked me through her post-injury story. She increasingly noticed that her neck had become “the weak link” in her physical health. Discomfort became even more prevalent after Grey gave birth ten years ago. As she began to have “really bad headaches,” she found herself pushing activities she enjoyed “off the table.” The pain made her feel vulnerable. However, as Grey explained, “I don’t like to complain.”

Repeatedly invited to be on Dancing With the Stars, Grey balked, She finally decided to use appearing on the show as “her carrot of motivation.” She connected with a doctor who pinpointed her problem. Her spinal cord was compressed and she needed fusion immediately. During the course of treatment, it was determined that she had a cancerous lump in her thyroid, which was then removed. Her footwork won her the top prize in the eleventh season of Dancing with The Stars.

When Purdue Pharma approached Grey to be the face of their national educational program to inform patients, caregivers, and physicians how to effectively communicate about pain management, Grey enthusiastically jumped onboard. Her motivation stemmed from her learning experience of shifting gears from “the pain is managing me” to “I’m managing the pain.” As Grey underscored, “I got my life back.”

Stats from the Institute of Medicine show that over 110 million adults in the United States “suffer from chronic pain.” The results of untreated pain can result in issues ranging from reduced mobility and function to a weakened immune system—as well as depression or anxiety.

Grey is promoting the view that patients do not have to be victims.  Partners Against Pain has set up a system of how to establish a “productive dialogue.” It is directed to both sides of the equation—patients and doctors. I was impressed that the material written for the medical community was able to acknowledge that for many doctors, listening and rapport skills need to be improved.

To build a robust patient agenda, Partners Against Pain used the results of a national survey to build out their suggestions for how to interact with practitioners at the maximum level. Key strategies include:

  • Prepare for your medical appointment. Educate yourself on potential treatment choices and alternative therapies.
  • Write down targeted points for discussion.
  • Bring a pain diary that can help track frequency and intensity of symptoms.
  • If you get nervous about presenting your concerns, practice your conversation with a friend to see if you are getting your points across.
  • Bring someone with you to the appointment to function as a second set of ears.

Once at the doctor’s office, in order to establish the goals of your visit:

  • Remain active in the conversation.
  • Ask questions if something is not clear.
  • Repeat instructions aloud to make sure you have the correct understanding of all directions.
  • Find out what follow-up steps to pursue.
  • Ask for recommendations for reading material about your condition.
  • Learn about your prescribed medications.
  • If you don’t see any improvement in your condition, ask for a referral to a physician who specializes in pain management.
  • Inquire about alternative options such as acupuncture, massage, or yoga.

Accompanying Grey to the interview was Micke A. Brown from the American Pain Foundation. In answer to my question about women frequently being told that their pain is psychologically based, Brown advised, “Don’t be afraid to speak up and speak out.” Grey agreed, adding, “If someone isn’t responsive to you—move on to someone else.”

Grey discussed the additional modalities she has employed including massage, “lots of exercise,” and stretching (“I was doing some stretches for fifteen to twenty minutes before you came in,” she told me.) Grey also spoke about her work with “mindful meditation,” where she breaks down the negative physical sensations, and then separates those feelings from her cognitive thoughts. Using “mental pictures,” Grey described how “self-help talk” could help at the “cellular level,” through a “self-modification” of the pain.

The bottom line for Grey was, “Make a step. Every day take an action for yourself. Break it down. Follow the breadcrumbs. Don’t give up. Do your best. Keep going.” She reflected, “Chronic pain can be very lonely. It can have a shame-based quality.”

Translating her personal journey into viable support and advice for others was clearly satisfying to Grey. Her bottom line was, “I’m super grateful to get this message out to people.”

Photo courtesy of Tim Long

This article originally appeared on the women’s health site EmpowHER.


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1 Response

  1. MadamaAmbi says:

    I’ve been dealing with chronic pain for 20 years and I agree with all of Jennifer Grey’s recommendations. I also have a background in psychology and have been both therapist and in need of therapy. Pain always has a neurobiological component–some of us have predispositions to pain because of inherited genes, as well as the very complex accumulation of cellular and neural memory as it was impacted by experience and environment. So, while dismissing patients for having imaginary pain that’s all in their heads is wrong and stupid, pain can often be helped by psychotherapeutic work.

    As Jennifer points out, just having chronic pain can induce shame: internalizing shame can happen out-of-consciousness and, when this happens, using a “Just Say I’m Not Ashamed” approach doesn’t change the complex neurobiology that has already wired itself up to activate, activate, activate. Internalized shame is itself a producer of stress, which is completely implicated in chronic pain.

    One of the neurobiological dynamics of chronic pain is that the sympathetic nervous systems keeps sending PAIN messages, but the parasympathetic nervous system, one of whose functions is to stop the alarm bells from ringing, doesn’t kick in. When it fails to kick in more than occasionally, your neurobiology changes. Your whole nervous system gets locked into a pattern of dysregulation, which adds to the chronicity of this stress/pain.

    Sometimes chronic pain is the result of physical, emotional or sexual abuse that is out-of-consciousness, maybe because it happened to you when you were a child, maybe because trauma gets split off from consciousness. Unresolved trauma also trains the sympathetic nervous system to send repeated PAIN alarms. Trauma work with a psychotherapist can help chronic pain. Unfortunately, in this culture, there is shame around seeing a psychotherapist.

    We are, indeed, a shame-based society…a pretty good breeding ground for chronic stress, chronic pain.

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